Still gold: Turmeric studies are revealing new and surprising benefits

April 7, 2020

Turmeric’s star just keeps shining. Look no further than HerbalGram’s latest Herb Market Report for evidence that, years after turmeric first attracted popular notice, the buzzworthy botanical keeps turning in stellar performances in both mainstream and natural channels.

How stellar? According to the report1, which reflects U.S. sales data for the 52 weeks ending December 30, 2018, turmeric enjoyed the greatest mainstream sales increase among all botanicals monitored, shooting up 30.5% to $93.3 million between 2017 and 2018. At the same time, turmeric raked in $51.2 million in natural-channel sales.

But just as every silver lining has a cloud, turmeric’s golden glow may be sliding into shadow—for the same report noted that for the first time ever, upstart hemp cannabidiol (CBD) usurped turmeric’s long-held top spot in the natural space.

So, is this turmeric’s sign to cede ground to CBD, or is there room enough in the botanical firmament for more than one superstar superfood?

Alexis Manfré, global product manager for proprietary turmeric ingredient TurmiPure Gold, Naturex (Avignon, France), is betting on the latter.

“While turmeric may no longer be in the number-one position, it certainly remains a top seller with continued growth,” he says. “Rather than looking at pure market share, the challenge going forward will be to take turmeric to the next level and meet consumer demand for convenience, clean labels, and efficacy at a low dose.”


Down but Hardly Out

Manfré isn’t the only herbal expert still bullish on turmeric—despite its natural-channel dip. “Over the past five years, we’ve seen demand grow massively in the U.S.,” he notes, “and we’re now seeing this same trend in Europe and emerging markets.”

Leisha Jenkins, marketing associate, Verdure Sciences (Noblesville, IN), agrees. “While it’s no surprise that turmeric is now sharing the limelight with other market prospects,” she says, “we’re still optimistic that we’ll continue to see substantial category growth.”

Francesca de Rensis, marketing director, Indena S.p.A. (Milan, Italy), is also optimistic. While acknowledging turmeric’s natural-channel slowdown, she sees its double-digit growth in the mass market as a genuine bright side, “demonstrating that turmeric is being adopted by a broader mainstream audience.”


Turmeric’s Trick

And for good reason.

Curcuma longa—the source of turmeric—is one of the most beneficial herbs we have,” says Mariko Hill, product development executive, Gencor (Irvine, CA). “There’s a reason our ancestors used the plant’s roots in therapeutic healing for thousands of years.” We’re merely beginning to catch on.

Rachela Mohr, business development manager for nutraceuticals, Wacker Biosolutions, Wacker Chemie AG (Munich, Germany), ascribes turmeric’s superstar status to a trio of timely advantages.

First, a natural plant extract “at a moment when natural products are increasingly important to consumers,” she says. Moreover, its history in India’s Ayurvedic tradition adds to its appeal—and to its credibility.

Finally, Mohr notes, “Claims for turmeric are backed by a huge number of recent human clinical studies that demonstrate its numerous health benefits.”

Many of those benefits stem from the root’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, which help support everything from cognition and mobility to cardio-metabolic and gut health. All of which explains why Naturex’s Manfré considers turmeric “a great product for the healthy-aging category, although there’s huge consumer demand for turmeric across all age groups.”


Rooted in Curcumin

While turmeric may be the public face for the botanical’s benefits, that face’s bright yellow color comes from a family of three pigmented compounds called curcuminoids: curcumin, demethoxycurcumin, and bisdemethoxycurcumin.

“As a matter of fact,” Indena’s de Rensis says, “curcuminoids remain turmeric’s most interesting components, with many of its health benefits associated directly with curcumin.” Indeed, no fewer than 3,000 preclinical trials have studied curcumin, she says, making it “one of the best-investigated botanical products in the biomedical literature at the preclinical level.”

Those studies’ results establish curcumin as a “master switch” of inflammation, de Rensis says, exhibiting both direct and genomic activity at the level of pro-inflammatory enzymes like cyclooxygenase and lipoxygenase, the inflammatory transcription factors NF-kB and AP3, and such inflammatory cytokines as the interleukins2.

It’s this anti-inflammatory capacity that helps curcumin inhibit the chronic inflammation associated with, for example, arthritis and skin conditions like psoriasis and eczema, adds Gencor’s Hill. “It has a positive track record for boosting immune response and disease prevention,” she continues. “Research shows that it can improve vascular endothelial function, easing blood flow and reducing strain on the heart. Studies show that it may improve metabolic disorders by regulating lipid metabolism and enhancing insulin sensitivity. Curcumin can improve overall brain health in many ways—most notably, by preserving mental acuity as we age. And multiple studies show that it helps cleanse and detox the liver by facilitating the removal of foreign substances from the body.3"

In sum, she says, “There’s a mountain of evidence to suggest that curcumin’s therapeutic effects are both powerful and long lasting.”


Good Sports

Let’s start with its effects in sports.

“When it comes to exercise, some degree of physiological inflammation post-exertion is essential for the development of muscle mass,” Hill explains. But our modern world and diets already skew us toward inflammation, she continues, which not only impairs general wellness but can trigger the delayed-onset muscle soreness that stalls recovery and dampens performance.

So, it’s encouraging news that a recent exercise-recovery study—currently under peer review—that Hill’s company, Gencor, conducted showed that its branded curcumin product HydroCurc significantly reduces levels of muscle soreness and inflammatory markers following exertion.

“More interestingly,” Hill notes, “the ingredient significantly activated the Akt/PKB pathway—the downstream region of the mTOR pathway—which signifies potential reduction in muscle catabolism.”

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